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Sarasota Orchestra, conducted by Leif Bjaland
with Lara St. John, violin
Van Wezel Performing Arts Center

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Lara St. John, violin solo)
Holst: The Planets

Leif Bjaland led the Sarasota Orchestra in a program featuring the evolution of programmatic music, from its beginnings in Vivaldi's four seasonal violin concerti, to its pinnacle, Gustav Holst's beloved Planets suite. An HD projector provided an interesting backdrop for the performance; excerpts from Vivaldi's poetry which inspired the Four Seasons appeared with its corresponding passages in music. Images of desolate craters and canyons taken by NASA mission to our solar system neighbors accompanied The Planets.

The program began with the Vivaldi, featuring soloist Lara St. John, a Canadian-born, Curtis Institute graduate. St. John's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Vivaldi was wild and quite exciting, if not technically polished. Many times, St. John's improvised and spontaneous playing of the solo part would give it the character of a 20th century concerto; several times after slightly missing pitches and improvising, the Vivaldi reminded me of passages from both the Schoenberg and Stravinsky violin concerti. What St. John lacked in precision she certainly made up for in stage presence and passion. Stray horse-hairs from her bow needed to be removed several times, and there were moments when she bowed her beautiful 1779 Guadagnini so earnestly that I feared she would break a string. Overall, the orchestra proved a fine accompaniment, besides the too-quiet basso continuo harpsichord played with timid but predicable steadiness by Sarasota Orchestra principal keyboardist Jonathan Spivey and the playing of the concertmaster, who was clearly out-classed by St. John in the many call and response passages between the soloist and first chair.

The Planets was a surprise triumph by the Sarasota Orchestra. Often in the past, I've questioned conductor Leif Bjaland's judgment in 20th century pieces, particularly in tempo-choice. But besides a rather lethargic "Mercury, the Winged Messenger" and a bit rushed "Saturn, Bringer of Death," the tempi were for the most part satisfying. "Mars, Bringer of War" opened the piece with truly glowing malevolence, bolstered by the fine work of the percussion and low-brass. The orchestra obviously relished the intensity of the movement, which was even more clear after they fell over themselves in "Venus, Bringer of Peace," the only true weak point of the night. Granted, achieving a sense of dream-like stillness while preventing the music from becoming saccharine or even boring makes "Venus" easily the most difficult movement, the Orchestra clearly didn't feel the emotions needed to carry the movement off. It felt mailed in, and I found myself to be rather relieved when it was finished, even in spite of the beautiful playing of the horn section throughout.

I like my "Mercury" fleet-footed and sprightly, but this "Mercury" merely succeeded in being jaunty. The strings clearly struggled with some of the runs, but as in so many other Sarasota Orchestra concerts, the truly remarkable woodwind battery saved the movement--especially Adam de Sorgo and Bharat Chandra's masterful oboe and clarinet, respectively. Here, Bjaland made perhaps his biggest artistic mistake of the night by failing to imbue the climactic build-up in "Mercury" with the sense of a great release or exhalation of energy before the movement bustled to a close.

"Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity" whisked by with no real quibbles, and with some rather inspired playing by the brass. The trio section was appropriately wistful and nostalgic, not too slow, and rather dry-eyed. "Saturn, Bringer of Death" was marred by an unfortunate tempo choice by Maestro Bjaland that turned the central funeral-march into something of a funeral-dash. The ponderous and slow crescendo into the "ticking-clocks" motif was simply too swift to convey the proper sense of brooding and inevitability that the movement calls for.

"Uranus, the Magician" was the high-point of the night. The musicians clearly put everything they had into the gallumphing, mock-serious dance--a sort of Sorcerer's Apprentice à la Holst, culminating in a truly earth-shattering finale. "Neptune, the Mystic" as ethereal and distant, although rather forgettable. The Women of the Key Chorale were completely drown out by the orchestra until about two minutes after their entrance, which is a shame because the entrance of the angelic, disembodied voices can be one of the truly remarkable moments in the piece.

Considering Maestro Bjaland's special affinity with Impressionist music, I would have expected "Mercury" to be executed in a bit more playful and spirited manner, but overall the concert was one of the best I have ever heard the Sarasota Orchestra play; the highlights of the performance were absolutely the woodwinds and low brass.

Vivaldi: 3 out of 5 stars
Holst: 4 out of 5 stars

OVERALL: 3.5/5


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Feb. 16th, 2013 10:16 pm (UTC)
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